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The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (review)
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The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism. By Joyce Appleby. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2010. 494 pp. $29.95 (cloth); $17.95 (paper).

The rise and history of capitalism has been one of the most contested and examined subjects in scholarship. This is hardly surprising since the system of capitalism—pervasive, ever evolving, and adapting to diverse contexts—has provided a framework for economic life around the world for several centuries while also shaping politics, social relations, cultures, and natural environments. Yet, there is much disagreement among historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and economists as to when, where, and how capitalism emerged as a coherent system, the stages it went through, its impact on societies, and even how it should be defined. Some of the most seminal European social theorists, among them Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Max Weber, examined capitalism and its consequences, drawing different conclusions. Smith extolled free markets and the invisible hand of the marketplace, Marx offered a materialist conception of capitalism as a mode of production that exploited workers, while Weber embedded capitalism in a cultural context (including Protestantism). A few decades ago leading historians of Europe, especially of Britain, avidly debated the transition from feudalism to capitalism, a conversation that has been [End Page 588] somewhat overshadowed in recent years as some scholars questioned the concept of feudalism for understanding medieval European society. For modern Europe and North America, scholars have examined the capitalists and their enterprises, workers and their experiences, and the interface between political and economic power. Meanwhile other observers have pondered the presumed nondevelopment of capitalism in premodern Asian societies, especially China, as well as the connection between capitalism and globalization. These debates should be of keen interest to world historians.

Joyce Appleby, a distinguished historian of the United States and Britain, has now offered her survey of the rise of capitalism in The Relentless Revolution, a high-profile book evidently aimed at a popular audience that will undoubtedly go on to many class reading lists and book club recommendations. Appleby makes her own views clear throughout, but they are views that will and should provoke debate; some critics may reject them as inadequately researched. Although describing herself as "a left-leaning liberal with strong, if sometimes contradictory, libertarian leanings" (p. 15), she is generally uncritical of capitalism and mostly dismisses Marxian and left-leaning scholarship. But her rejection of both quantitative economics and notions of "economic man" deriving from Adam Smith will distress some ardent free marketeers and many conventional economists. Her informative and readable book has received considerable attention and much praise, especially by specialists in U.S. history. But many world historians may find it, as this reviewer does, disappointing, marred by Eurocentrism and inadequate sourcing while neglecting many relevant topics and scholarship. Too much is left out to make this a satisfactory account. She states her goal as exploring benchmarks in capitalism's ascent, looking at how it transformed politics while churning up the practices, thought, values, and ideals of societies. This is not a general study of capitalism in the world, with tables, charts, and a thorough survey of the relevant literature, but a narrative that follows the shaping of the economic system that we live in today. Nor does it cover how various countries became capitalist; rather Appleby wants to show the developments in particular places that gave form to capitalism.

Much of the narrative goes over familiar ground in European and U.S. history. Historians, economists, and others have offered many, and often sharply differing, definitions of capitalism. Taking a revisionist stance, Appleby narrows the idea of capitalism and the range of influences prompting its rise. Rejecting the notion, proposed by many scholars, of merchant capitalism in the later Middle Ages, she argues that capitalism did not emerge from trade, which has been around for [End Page 589] millennia, but in production of goods for the market. Hence, commerce, no matter how dynamic, was not sufficient to foster or define capitalism. Furthermore, like Weber, she sees capitalism as not just an economic practice but a cultural practice that required changes in how people thought and acted. Appleby disagrees with...